The Political Evolution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt Stephen Bennett
The Political Evolution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
“Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
Yet that is still a debatable position, because despite being the ideological parent of these violent organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood itself has always maintained an official stance against violence and instead has promoted Islamic civil and social action at the grassroots level. Within the first twenty years of its existence the Muslim Brotherhood gained status as the most influential of all major groups in the Middle East through its popular activism. It also spread from Egypt into other nations throughout the region and served as the catalyst for many of the successful popular liberation movements against Western colonialism in the Middle East.
While it has retained most of its founding principles from its inception, the Muslim Brotherhood has made a dramatic transformation in some crucial aspects of its political ideology. Formerly denounced by many as a terrorist organization, as of late the Muslim Brotherhood has been labeled by most current scholars of the Middle East as politically “moderate”, “politically centrist”, and “accommodationist” to Egypt’s political and governmental structures (Abed-Kotob, 1995, p. 321-322). Sana Abed-Kotob also tells us that of the current Islamist opposition groups that exist today “the more ‘radical’ or militant of these groups insist upon revolutionary change that is to be imposed on the masses and political system, whereas… the new Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, call for gradual change that is to be undertaken from within the political system and with the enlistment of the Muslim masses” (p. 321).
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s origins as a resistance organization and its past ties to violent and radical Islamist groups, it has in recent years adopted a platform advocating democracy and collaborated with liberal political groups in Egypt. So how and why did the Muslim Brotherhood transform itself from an organization that vehemently opposed the Egyptian government and produced violent splinter-sects into one that adopted a moderate political platform and accepts a limited role as a functional political organization in the Egyptian government?
Carrie Rosefsky Wickham (2004) states that the Muslim Brotherhood’s eventual “moderation was driven in part by strategic calculation” and “political learning”, and a product of changes in values “facilitated by the interaction of Islamists and secular opposition leaders in pursuit of…reform of Egypt’s authoritarian state” and “the institutional opportunities and incentives…created by a mix of regime accommodation and repression of the country’s Islamist groups”. (p. 207) According to Wickham, the political progression of the Muslim Brotherhood stands as an argument in favor of affording such militant opposition groups limited political goods in exchange for de-radicalization of their stated political goals, positions, and activities.
My paper will begin with an analysis of the early foundations of the political beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood as seen through the writings of Hassan al-Banna. I will then explore the activities and interactions of the Egyptian government with the Brotherhood, the adjustments made to the political policies of each, and how both sides’ extremism helped to bring one another to the relative political center. Here I will expand on the ideas proposed by Wickham, in that not only do I believe that the moderation of the politics of the Brotherhood was a result of the repression of the government and rational political learning, but also that the moderation of the government was a result of the power and ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, i.e. a long-term ‘push and pull’ between the two.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni Islamist political and social organization created by Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian schoolteacher, in 1928 soon after he had begun his teaching career. Al-Banna’s ideology that served as the foundation for the Brotherhood was largely the product of Western imperialism in the Middle East and of oppressive British colonial rule in Egypt. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the division of its lands into states under direct Western influence was a demoralizing turn of events for the Muslims of the Middle East, and led to al-Banna’s belief that the Islamic world was being subjugated to the will of the West because the umma had strayed away from Islamic societal principles. Abdelwahab el-Affendi explains that the emergence of movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 20th century was “a reaction against the de facto triumph of the secular tendencies, where sharia has preceded the khalifa on the way out, and westernization was gaining pace.” (Taji-Farouki & Nafi (Eds.) 2004, p. 178). Thus, al-Banna created the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization to liberate the peoples of the Middle East from Western imperialism though a return to the sunna (the proper ways of Islamic life as described in the Quran and hadith) and to establish “an economically productive, politically stable Islamic society” (Simms, 2002, p. 569).
During their colonial domination of Egypt the British “produced a ruling-class ideology, characterized by racist paternalism, to justify their subordination of Egypt” and “created a philosophy that validated their sense of cultural and racial superiority”, which only added to the demoralization that was felt by Egyptians (Simms, 2002, p. 569). According to Basheer M. Nafi and Suha Taji-Farouki (2004), “the traumatic experience of Western imperialism and post-colonial Western hegemony… had its share in shaping the Islamic imagining, both of the self-world and the world at large.” They state that “this experience has shaped the manner in which modern Muslims invoke traditional Islamic values and cultural systems, and…as much as the West is admired and internalized, it is vilified and consciously rejected”. (p. 13) This is reflected in al-Banna’s belief that the umma had strayed from the sunna because of the increasing influence of Westernization in Egypt and the larger Middle East, hence his rejection of Western social models.
In al-Banna’s essay “The New Renaissance”, he described what he saw as the palpable need for a major Islamist revival movement in Egypt; “Voices are raised proclaiming the necessity for a return to the principles, teachings, and ways of Islam and, taking into account the situation, for initiating the reconciliation of modern life with these principles, as a prelude to a final “Islamization”” (Donahue, Esposito, (Eds.) 2007p. 59) Sociologist Rupe Simms (2002) has organized Hassan al-Banna’s founding beliefs for the Muslim Brotherhood concerning this “Islamization” into four main aspects, which I will utilize in my analysis here:
Firstly, the all-sufficiency of Islam, stating that “As a belief system unto itself, Islam was the ultimate authority in every category of human life” and “was the final arbiter in politics as well as religion, in the things of the market place as well as in those of the state” (Simms, p. 573). In al-Banna’s own words the Brethren “knew for certain that Islam is this full, comprehensive meaning and that it must have supervision in all matters of life…and that all things must come under its rule, conform to its rules and teachings, and draw upon it” (Simms, p. 573).
Derived directly from the idea of the all-sufficiency of Islam comes the second founding ideal, that Islam is the sole basis for the Quranic state al-Banna envisioned for Egypt. With his belief that Quranic law is all-encompassing, al-Banna’s platform called for the abandonment of all principles not contained within Islamic doctrine. The Egyptian constitution in 1928 “was incontrovertibly the product of British imperialism” and “did not state the principles or demonstrate the efficacy of Islamic law”. Like most of the Egyptian public, the Brethren resented the constitution because not only was it the cause the socioeconomic exploitation of the Egyptian masses, it also legalized gambling, prostitution, and the consumption of alcohol, all in direct violation of Islamic law (Simms, p. 574). This was especially appalling to the traditional Islamic sensibilities existent in Egypt.
According to Carrie Rosefsky Wickham (2004), “The largest, best organized, and most popular opposition groups in the Arab world are those that seek Islamic reform of society and state”, and the Muslim Brotherhood was no exception (p. 205). At the time of it’s founding, the Brotherhood advocated a return to the Caliphate “in order to form a truly Quranic government” and harshly criticized “the entire legislative structure” the Egyptian constitution created. (Simms, p. 574) Through the Muslim Brotherhood Al-Banna intended to demonstrate to the West “the excellence of Islamic principles of collective organization, and their superiority over everything known to man until now” and thus called for a strictly “‘Islamic order’ in society” and a complete overhaul of the existing Egyptian colonial government (Donahue & Esposito (Eds.), p. 59).
The third founding principle, and perhaps the reason the popularity and rapid growth of the Brotherhood during al-Banna’s lifetime, was the use of Islam as “the basis for a critique of Westernism”. (Simms p. 575) Al-Banna believed that traditional Islamic society as a whole was under attack because of the imposition of Western social structures that bred “vice and violence” and “led to the breaking loose of nations and peoples, to the overthrow of collective organizations and family structure”, which in turn fostered “the setting up of dictatorial regimes”. (Donahue & Esposito (Eds.), p. 61) In other words, al-Banna saw that the influence of the British occupation transcended the political and projected unto the family and religious life in Egypt, and that as these fundamental societal structures are broken down it opens the door for all forms of oppression.
Al-Banna also observed inherent contradictions and hypocrisies of the West, where it had “long been ruled by democratic systems, and man has everywhere glorified and honored the conquests of democracy”. Al-Banna argued that “Victory at the end of WWI reinforced” the belief that democratic structures were superior, “but men were slow to realize that their collective liberty had not come out intact of the chaos…and that the government of the people had not in many cases freed society from camouflaged dictatorship that destroyed responsibility without limiting jurisdiction” (Donahue & Esposito (Eds.), p. 61).
Responsibility to one’s fellow man is an important Islamic principle and in using Islam as the sole framework for a critique of the West, Al-Banna pointed out that the Western practice of not applying their own valuable democratic principles unto their colonial possessions was un-Islamic. After seeing the social unrest and economic disparity that were the direct effects of Westernization on the Middle East, especially when placed in contrast with the great independent Islamic empires that formerly inhabited the region, al-Banna concluded that Islamic model of governance was the only one that could liberate the peoples of the Middle East and return them to their former glory. Al-Banna said that if Muslims were “to free themselves from the existing state of affairs” under the yoke of Western imperialism, they had “to allow the necessary return of the nations and peoples to Islam” (Donahue & Esposito (Eds.), p. 62). Under the conditions most Egyptians experienced under British rule, this was surely an effective rallying point for the masses of Egypt to unite under an Islamic banner in their quest for independence.
The final and perhaps most important founding ideal for the Muslim Brotherhood is al-Banna’s interpretation of jihad, which he said “God required…for each and every Muslim as a necessary, irrefutable, and inescapable obligation” (Ayyad, as cited by Simms, p. 578). It is important that we note al-Banna’s particular interpretation of jihad, because it is one of the pivotally important founding principles that would be revisited by later members of the Brotherhood. Al-Banna’s writings implied that only the use of defensive jihad was acceptable because “God willed that Egypt liberate itself from British domination, not only through non-violence…but also, if necessary, through jihad” because the “Quran cited foreign rule as intolerable” (Simms, p. 578). Al-Banna seems to state that militant jihad was to be used after non-violent means had failed, and that it was to be utilized under the stipulation that it is necessary i.e. when under intolerable foreign occupation. (This interpretation would be used as a call to arms later in Palestine as well as Egypt)
With these broadly stated goals in mind, al-Banna led the Muslim Brotherhood in its early stages mainly as “an educational and cultural organization”, focusing on social problems facing Muslims living under imperialist rule throughout the Middle East. Al-Banna spread his “Islam-centered message” of liberation “to the subordinated masses” in the mosques, coffee-houses, and marketplaces throughout Cairo, “politicizing the common folk with a religiously focused anti-Western message” (Simms, p. 570). According to Simms, “The Brotherhood, by popularizing its counter-hegemonic ideology, had developed a following among the common folk and the educated classes that was capable of seriously challenging the dominant structures of subordination” (Simms, p. 571). In this sense, by appealing to both the educated and uneducated classes, the Muslim Brotherhood is a truly populist Islamic movement in that the Brethren still spread their message locally and rely on political and social action beginning with the masses on upward.
The Brethren’s growing influence and popularity of their message in Egypt in the 1930’s led the establishment of other branches throughout greater Egypt and in Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and North Africa (Simms, p. 570). During this early period the Brotherhood was essentially ignored by the British colonial authorities and was able to staunchly maintain and promote their founding principles, including the replacement of Egypt’s government with a re-established Islamic Caliphate. With the British distracted fighting the Axis powers in World War II, the Muslim Brotherhood’s membership expanded rapidly and the distribution of their anti-British propaganda reached an all-time high within Egypt. Presumably the British exploitation and bankrupting of Egypt in order for their acquisition of raw materials for the war effort helped the Brotherhood’s message spread. Over 500 branches of the Brotherhood existed throughout the country by 1939 and had also spread to Iraq and Yemen, two other British colonial possessions (Simms, p. 570-71).
But whereas the formation and stated beliefs of the organization was formerly just a minor political shove against the British colonialists in the 1930’s, in the 1940’s the Brethren’s potent sociopolitical message began to foment more tangible and widespread popular dissent to British colonial rule. The Brethren’s keen organizational networking had also been very successful and only increased the threat they presented to Britain’s hold on Egypt. Fearing this growing influence, the British asserted themselves forcefully when Prime Minister Sirri Pacha “responding to pressure from Britain, attacked the organization, confiscating its publications, shutting down its printing presses, and arresting its leaders, including al-Banna himself” (Simms, p. 571).
By then the charismatic al-Banna and the Brotherhood had cultivated a strong relationship with the population of Egypt through their mutual opposition to British presence, and it only solidified once any dissenters came under political and legal persecution by the puppet Egyptian government. The interests of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian masses had by this point become intertwined. This dramatic increase in the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in Egypt gave al-Banna the political power to make his first major push back against the British in 1945 when he decided to more forcefully invoke one of the Brotherhood’s founding principles-jihad.
Under increasingly harsh treatment al-Banna decided that the occupation had truly passed the point of intolerable; he told the Prime Minister al-Nuqrashi to either eject the British from Egypt altogether or he and the Brethren would lead the masses in jihad (Simms, p. 570). Al-Banna’s decision to declare jihad at this point in the Brotherhood’s existence exemplifies the first notable shift in the beliefs of the Brotherhood due to governmental oppression. While his previous interpretation of jihad was quite restrained, his decision to call for it as late as 1945, despite the fact that the political in Egypt situation had not changed much, arguably proves that it was a political reaction to such harsh treatment by the al-Nurqashi regime. In response, and again under order of the British, al-Nurqashi violently repressed the Brotherhood even more, increasing violent attacks on them, which continued for the next two years in order to intimidate the masses and prevent the breakout of full-scale militant rebellion.
The Brotherhood again invoked the concept of jihad in 1948 when it provided fighters to assist the nation of Egypt in the war with Israel to liberate Palestine, despite their existing tensions with the government. This would come back to haunt the Egyptian regime; once the Brethren had members with combat experience and had become more militant, they became an even more dangerous force to the Prime Minister “who feared their subversive potential and redoubled his efforts to destroy them” (Simms, p. 571). Three weeks after Al-Nuqrashi ordered the Brotherhood banned from Egypt he was assassinated by a small and secretive militant wing of the Brethren. Al-Banna was assassinated soon after at the age of 43, presumably by elements of the British government as revenge for the death of the prime minister.
The Brotherhood had been moving closer and closer to all-out militancy, but the death of al-Banna brought a stark realization to the ranks of the Brotherhood and the organization to a formative turning point. The remaining members saw that if they were to survive as an organization while still remaining true to the founding vision of al-Banna, they could no longer engage the state directly and militantly and would have to articulate their political beliefs more to the people, in keeping with their grassroots political traditions. Accordingly, they no longer advocated jihad against the Egyptian government and in return the Egyptian government returned their confiscated materials and gradually allowed them resume producing literature. The Brotherhood had determined that they would be more effective fighting the oppressive state if “they refined their Quranic ideology in order to better educate and equip the masses to challenge the colonial order”. (Simms, p. 572) While the Brethren could very easily have renewed their call to jihad and radicalized themselves even more within Egypt, they instead made a mutual political compromise with the government and became “less militant” and more “ideologically focused” (Simms, p. 572).
Al-Banna’s successor, Hasan al-Hudaybi, was chosen purposefully because he was already a supporter of Colonel Gamal Adbel Nasser’s Free Officers Movement, which overthrew the British controlled Egyptian monarchy and took power in a military coup in 1952. The Muslim Brotherhood under al-Hudaybi was initially a strong supporter of the Nasser regime, as they were “attracted by the soldiers’ Islamic rhetoric” and played a significant role in bringing him to power (Leiken & Brooke, 2007) (Simms p. 572). The Free Officers Movement also admired the Brotherhood in return because of the assistance they provided in fighting the 1948 war with Israel.
The rise of Nasser’s government and the widespread political optimism after the ejection of the British colonials form Egypt brought about an influx of some totally new ideals to the organization, the most dramatic change in the form of government the Brotherhood began to support. Originally supporters of a Caliphate government for the entire Islamic world, the Brotherhood rapidly embraced the Western ideal of democracy, though within a distinctly Islamic model. Still, the idea that power lie within the masses took hold in Egypt and with their widespread support amongst the population, the Brotherhood quickly saw its advantages. In his 1953 pamphlet “The Principles of Islamic Government” Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Abdullah As-Samman, wrote “To recognize the people is to recognize that it is the source of authority (for the government). It is not possible to do so unless the people…can appoint the ruler; unless the people can depose the ruler as it had set him up.” In an explicit departure from al-Banna’s belief in the legitimacy of the Caliphate he added “Absolute rule is the worst enemy of Islam” (As-Samman, 1953, translated by Haim, p. 245)
However, Nasser’s reluctance to implement major democratic reforms and failure to implement sharia law as he had promised the Brotherhood in exchange for their support left some of the more radical members disillusioned. In 1954 one of the Brethren tried to assassinate Nasser with a pistol, who amazingly escaped unscathed despite being shot at multiple times. Nasser’s men quickly rounded up and jailed members of the Brotherhood and tortured them extensively, including the vast majority of members who had no idea of the assassination attempt beforehand. This treatment by Nasser left the Brotherhood members feeling betrayed by Nasser, their ally and fellow Egyptian Muslims.
This was another possible opportunity to renew their call to jihad, this time against the oppressive Nasser instead of the British, but the Brotherhood instead made some more adjustments to their political platform. Despite being tortured and beat by Egyptian interrogators, Hudaybi, to his credit, also decided to depart a bit from al-Banna’s strict interpretation of justifiable jihad, and surprisingly softened it even more and rejected the rising sentiment for takfir, which will be discussed later here (Leiken & Brooke, 2007).
And since the Brotherhood was now relatively freer under Nasser and therefore more willing to compromise with him than they were with the British, the Brotherhood now only needed to articulate their politics in the public arena to garner support for their goals instead of opposing Nasser’s Free Officers directly. The Brethren used what political freedom they had and declared all Egyptian political parties themselves too divisive a means for Egypt to overcome its social problems because they “undermined national strength and should be replaced by a non-partisan Islamic system”. In the declared view of the Brotherhood, “parties lacked the programs necessary to accomplish their stated objectives, while their true objectives focused on gaining power and controlling the state” (Simms p. 574). Essentially, the Brotherhood’s rejection of the party system was a direct reaction to their betrayal by Nasser and the Free Officers movement.
As an important side note, this period of brutal repression did produce one of the most radical individual members to pass through the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb. From his jail cell Qutb concluded that any Muslim that could inflict such punishment, oppression, and torture on other members of the umma, was in fact not a true Muslim at all, but an apostate (kafireen). Qutb became a radical proponent of takfir, the act of declaring other Muslims apostates and cited the struggle against them as a justification for jihad. This interpretation served as the inspiration for the group al-Jihad’s 1980 assassination of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat. And though he was executed by Nasser’s regime in 1966 under suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government, Qutb’s ideology has proven to be surprisingly pervasive.
In inspiring the previously mentioned violent Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and al-Takfir wa al-Hijra, Qutb is almost singly-handedly responsible for the modern era of Islam-inspired terrorism, due to his extremist invocation of takfir and how it has been applied by modern-day radical Islamists like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. While the Brotherhood to this day views Qutb as a martyr because he died while working with them, they are careful to note that he strayed far from the initial teachings of al-Banna and his limited justification for jihad (Leiken & Brooke, 2007). And while Qutb was a member of the Brotherhood, it was quickly decided during his lifetime that he in no way represented the official positions of the organization and most of his more extreme writings were rejected by them.
The Brotherhood’s outspoken denunciation of Qutb’s philosophies on takfir helped open the door for their future political participation. After Nasser’s death and decades of political repression, moderation, and accommodation the Egyptian government under Anwar Sadat decided the Muslim Brotherhood had proven its “moderate vocation” and was granted limited political participation (Leiken & Brooke, 2007). In return, the Brotherhood retracted its hard-line opposition to political parties and has since “in pursuit of popular authority…formed electoral alliances with secularists, nationalists, and liberals” in Egypt and has participated in four elections (Leiken & Brooke, 2007).
The Brotherhood’s political moderation and agreements with Sadat “appalled the takfiris, who streamed out of the Brotherhood” and formed their own violent organizations outside it (Leiken & Brooke, 2007). As previously mentioned, al-Takfir wa al-Hijra claimed responsibility for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Shortly after Sadat’s assassination Muslim Brother Abdullah Muhammad Ibrahim made it a point to again explicitly differentiate the Brotherhood from violent Islamist radicals and publicly repudiated al-Takfir wa al-Hijra saying that the group “tends to go too far in certain respects…they characterize many people as false Muslims…We, on the other hand, do not condemn anyone” (Ibrahim, 1982, p. 12).
The Brotherhood’s ideological split from the more violent Islamic extremists and the political accommodations they made during Sadat’s rule set the tone for where we find the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood through the 1980’s and 90’s up until today. The Brotherhood concluded that an Islamic society like Egypt “will naturally desire Islamic leaders and support them at the ballot box” and “came to find democracy compatible with its notion of slow Islamization” (Leiken & Brooke, 2007). The current Mubarak regime still bars the Muslim Brotherhood from official recognition by the government, though they found success in helping to elect thirty-six Islamist candidates to the Egyptian parliament (Abed-Kotob, p. 325). Today the Brethren use vernacular familiar to most Americans, citing ““democracy”, “liberty”, and “freedom”…implying that democratic institutions can function within a system of Islamic legislation” (Abed-Kotob, p. 325). The Brotherhood has also made sure to abandon their revolutionary roots in Egypt, assuring the Mubarak government that they “do not consider revolution, nor do they depend upon it, not do they believe in its utility or its outcome” (Abed-Kotob, p. 327).
And while al-Banna developed a defensive justification for jihad, today the Brethren assert that “there is never a moral justification for the use of violence in the pursuit of religious ideals” (Abed-Kotob, p. 323). In connection, where the Egyptian government arbitrarily used violence against Brotherhood members, there has been a noticeable decrease in such after the Brotherhood renounced its revolutionary goals and showed that they were no longer a threat to the government. And where the Brotherhood’s stated understanding of jihad came dangerously close to pushing the organization into becoming a militant faction during periods off increased political tensions and suppression, its second generation of moderate leaders combined with the political accommodations provided to them by Nasser brought them back to moderation.
The final and perhaps most important accommodation made by the Brotherhood was their newfound willingness to work with political parties they see as sharing in their Islamic ideals, despite slight ideological differences in other areas. Sana Abed-Kotob states that today “the Brotherhood’s most significant strategy is its willingness to work within the existing political system for the advancement of its goals”; she adds that “the most important indication of their proclivity to accommodate the system is their emphasis on elevating the organization to the status of a recognized political party” (Abed-Kotob, p. 328). The Muslim Brotherhood has essentially made the choice to work within given political systems instead of try to overthrow them because their primary goal is still, as it was in 1928, the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt and “the contemporary Brotherhood views the election campaign as an ideal apparatus for promulgating the message of Islam as the solution” (Abed-Kotob, p. 331).
In closing, the great changes made in the political beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood support the argument for affording Islamist groups limited political goods in exchange for political accommodation on their part. As we have seen in recent years, radical Islamists are unrelenting in their commitment to violent jihad in pursuit of their political goals, a problem with no foreseeable solution, including the Bush Administration’s mistaken belief that military force is the answer. While many states such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Israel employ similar methods and violently suppress and persecute radical Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt stand as a testament to the progress that can be had when Islamist groups are allowed the work within the political structure instead of being wholly banned from it. Based on the model provided by the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a more widespread acknowledgement that “the violence that takes place at the hands of Islamists…is a result of governmental restrictions that leave legitimate channels of political action closed to those Islamist tendencies” and that those channels need to be provided if violent Islamism is to be dealt with effectively in the long term. (Abed-Kotob, p. 333).
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